The heated debate today over whether "critical race theory" has a place in the American school curriculum highlights the battleground that education can become. CRT was developed over forty years ago by scholars as a way of gaining insight into how racism shapes American society and institutions; today ten American states have altered their legislation or taken measures to restrict its teaching, with many more states planning to follow suit.
Critical race theory has become a flashpoint for broader issues within American society, which strike at the heart of its identity, perhaps even its freedoms. For some, critical race theory is a dangerous way of thinking that exacerbates division between white people and people of color, vilifies white people and indoctrinates children. For others, it is a brilliant tool for gaining insights into the institutional bias that shapes modern society, hinders social progress and mobility and stops America being the best it can be. The theory has become associated with activism and civil rights movements and broadened to encompass not just race but class, gender and disability. Such is the controversy associated with it that, apart from changes in the law, the threats and hate mail that teachers can receive for expressing one view or another can lead to self-censorship. Cancel culture, where a person can find themselves at risk of losing their job, reputation or even their safety should they say the wrong thing, has prompted alarm at cultural shifts in America. Some have even queried whether we are living in an age of “soft totalitarianism” in which arguably even free thinking is suppressed. Is freedom of speech, perhaps even freedom of thought, really in danger in American classrooms?
There is one remarkable example of defiance of official ideological control in education – a story which, although set in the extreme context of Hitler’s totalitarian state, still holds lessons for today. In 1933, school principal Anna Essinger made history as she defied Hitler and smuggled her entire school out of Germany.
With the passing of time, Anna’s story was almost lost to us, but at a recent Kindertransport commemoration in London to celebrate the escape of 10,000 children from Nazi Germany to Britain before the Second World War, I met one former pupil and child refugee, Leslie Brent. Over eighty years previously, Leslie knew all about living with the suppression of the truth in a Nazi totalitarian state. He had been one of the many thousands of Jewish school children in Germany traumatized by Nazi racial ideology and the brutality that ensued. Within weeks of Hitler becoming Germany’s dictator in March 1933, the politicization of education began with all subjects on the curriculum changed to reflect the Nazi racist ideology that so called “Aryans” or Germans were a superior master race. Jews were denounced as untermenschen (subhuman) and laws were introduced restricting their access to education. Jewish schoolchildren like Leslie soon found themselves vilified at school in a multitude of cruel ways: ordered out of class by the teacher and then summoned and questioned on the lesson they had missed to “prove” their stupidity; made to eat their lunch in the toilet because they were “dirty Jews”; or standing in front of the class as their alleged biological differences from their “Aryan” classmates were pointed out. Repeated persecution instilled into children like Leslie that they were part of an “odious race” with “devious minds” and that they were “enemies of the people.” He felt he had almost internalised the endless denigration. “I took it for granted as a fact,” he recalls.
But Leslie’s story was not just about humanity’s descent into evil perpetrated by Hitler and the way this shaped young minds. With great emotion, he urged me to consider writing about the woman who he felt had saved him: the school principal, Anna Essinger. Quite apart from her shrewd judgment in making a stand against Hitler, there was something about her courage and her unselfish vision to help children that Leslie felt should never be forgotten. He put me in touch with others who had been at her school and I began to investigate further.
While other school principals tried to compromise and accommodate Nazism, Anna thought differently, perhaps because of her experience of living in democratic America. Although born in Germany, as a young woman she had taken the unusual step of funding herself through ten years of education in America at the University of Wisconsin. In the early 1900s, progressive American thinkers, including the university’s president Charles van Hise, were challenging the status quo, arguing university research could be used to guide political thinking to improve the quality of life for all. Inspired, Anna embarked on a degree and then an MA in education. For her, education was the key to progress; by inspiring the next generation with all that was good, humanity could advance. In the 1920s when she returned to postwar Germany, Anna turned her back on the old fashioned “rod of iron” approach to teaching and pioneered a modern, child-centred approach at Landschulheim Herrlingen, the progressive country boarding school she created in 1926, near Ulm in southern Germany.
But within days of Hitler coming to power, her life’s work was in jeopardy. Anna was instructed to fly a swastika over her school—a symbolic gesture perhaps, but one she abhorred. In Nazi Germany truth was being turned into lies, black into white. How could she raise children “in honesty and freedom” under a Nazi dictator? For Anna, the violence, hatred and blame openly endorsed by the Nazi party clashed directly with everything she was trying to teach her pupils. She hurriedly ordered a camping trip for her pupils, and only when the building was deserted did she hoist the despised symbol of fascism above her school.
Such actions were dangerous in a Nazi totalitarian state. Hitler made no secret of the new concentration camps; even those whose crime was merely to make “insufficient effort to understand the national socialist revolution” could find themselves interrogated by the Gestapo or incarcerated without charge. Unknown to Anna, there was indeed a traitor at her school who denounced her to the authorities. Helman Speer, the husband of one of the teachers, wrote to the Minister of Culture in Wurttemberg in May 1933 to express his “serious doubts” about Anna Essinger. Her “rather airy-fairy humanism,” he claimed, was “altogether uncongenial” to National Socialism. Since many of the teachers at Anna’s school at Herrlingen were “Aryan” he hoped they could join forces “and endow the school with a spirit different from that of the present director.” He urged that a Nazi spy be placed at the school, “a commissar… who would be prepared to come to an understanding with those members willing to cooperate.”
But Anna was ahead of him. That spring, as Germany’s fledgling democracy was being destroyed with the rapid dismantling of the political system, the legal system and freedom of the press, Anna was secretly working with teachers and parents on her plan to move her school lock, stock and barrel out of the country, right under the nose of the authorities. She knew the Gestapo would never permit the mass emigration of an entire school and started on a secret plan to outsmart them, a feat that no other teacher managed to pull off. By October, 1933 Anna, her core staff, and the first seventy children escaped to a run-down manor house, Bunce Court, in Kent in southern England.
The refuge that Anna created at Bunce Court soon reflected the escalating catastrophe unfolding on the continent. Many children arriving from Germany in the 1930s saw their families impoverished and abused, their parents imprisoned or even killed. During 1938, the crisis spread to Austria and Czechoslovakia prompting a further wave of refugees. After Kristallnacht, a brutal pogrom in Greater Germany in which 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps, confused and bewildered children started to arrive on kindertransports, such as thirteen-year-old Leslie Brent. In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and, with the start of the Second World War, children like Leslie found themselves cut off from their parents in a wholly unpredictable way.
Later, Tante Anna would offer a refuge to orphans who had survived the war in Nazi occupied territories in concentration camps, labor camps, or living underground. These were children who had suffered extremes of trauma, such as fifteen-year-old Sam Oliner, who had witnessed the brutal liquidation of his ghetto in Bobowa and survived the war hidden in plain sight in disguise as a Polish boy, living in constant terror as Jews were mercilessly hunted down. In his class at Bunce Court was fourteen-year-old Sidney Finkel from Poland, who had also endured the destruction of his family, the liquidation of Piotrkow ghetto, concentration camps and a death train. Sidney felt he had become “more like an animal, with instincts only for survival.
Tante Anna aimed to create a “home school” where such traumatized orphans would feel secure and loved, children like Sam and Sidney who had been stripped of all hope and seen things no child should witness. In the 1940s, little was known about extreme trauma, and Tante Anna understood the best way to help her concentration camp survivors was not to dwell on the past but to focus on the present and their future. “We were basically told to forget all the bad stuff that had happened to us,” recalled Anna Rose, the only girl survivor from Poland. “This was a new day and life would begin all over again and since we had been spared, we had to live a life that would make our parents proud.” Many of these orphaned children found their trauma ran too deep to discuss, but they could respond to the loving environment of Bunce Court. The strong emphasis on practical tasks at the school helped to relieve their stress and build self-confidence. There was always music too, recalls Sidney: “music was the soul of this school.” Above all Tante Anna and the teachers encouraged questioning and freedom of thought as they tried to inspire those who had experienced the worst of humanity with the very best.
Years later, pupils would refer to the “Bunce Court spirit” that infused all their efforts and pervaded the atmosphere. For them the school seemed to stand apart, an oasis in a world that was overwhelmed by the forces of Nazi evil. “I treasure those years… It was transformative,” continues Anna Rose. Sidney, too, found he was changing. Tante Anna was “very loving” he says. “I began to belong in Bunce Court. It was a wonderful thing.” For Leslie, “all the violence I had experienced before felt like a bad dream. It was paradise. I think most of the children felt it was paradise.”
After the Second World War, with the liberation of the concentration camps and the revelation of the evil and depravity of Nazism, the world could see the full horror of Hitler’s totalitarian state. Seventeen million people had been murdered by the Nazis, including Slavs, Soviet prisoners of war, Romani and other minorities, and above all, Jews: two thirds of the Jewish population of Europe, including one-and-a-half million children. Anna saw photographs of the great pile of children’s shoes outside the crematorium at Auschwitz. Herown struggles to create something good seemed meaningless against such evil. But in her own modest way, through her own actions, Tante Anna did have an answer to the horror that engulfed her own generation
As she grappled with the destructive forces of a cataclysmic epoch, she tried to show her pupils a path that would lead them away from pain and hatred towards healing and love. Anna herself was not religious and her school was run according to “a complex amalgam of humanism, the Quaker faith, liberal values and Judaism, brought together by the mind of a woman whose one purpose in life seemed to be to serve children,” observed another former pupil, Eric Bourne. Above all, whatever the background, race or religion of her pupils, they were expected to help each other. “Children, you must love one another, and if that is not possible, at least respect each other,” she would say to them.
Her words and deeds echo down the decades and still have something to teach us. As the debate rages today about critical race theory, freedom of speech, cancel culture and all the other pressures of modern living, her simple message to her children still stands. Tolerance. Appreciation of another’s point of view. Respect. Love. These are the freedoms that count and that she dedicated her life to fighting for. “Some have called Bunce Court a second home,” observes Megan Ryan, the wife of a former pupil. “It is more than that. It is a way of life, a state of mind… Tante Anna has made a great achievement.”
Deborah Cadbury is the author of The School that Escaped the Nazis, to be published July 12 by Public Affairs Books